April 14th, 2010
I returned safe and sound, although very, very tired from my whirlwind mainland China spring break trip! And words cannot express how happy I was to get back to Hong Kong and “civilization” after spending 11 full days in China.
Let’s start from when I left on Tuesday night, March 30th. Getting to Shenzhen was the easy part of the trip; the three girls I was going with (Ilaria, Jen, and Abby) and I met up at 6:45 that evening, and we took the bus (with all of our luggage) and then the MTR straight to Shenzhen. We passed through customs, went to Queen Spa (where we spent the night the first time we were in Shenzhen), had dinner at the delicious restaurant across the street, stuffed ourselves with fruit and ice cream at Queen’s Spa and went to bed. Easy as pie – the trip was going to be a cinch. Such famous last words – how naïve I was.
The next morning we were woken up, had breakfast, and the doorman at the spa negotiated us a taxi (in Cantonese, of course) to the Shenzhen Airport where our flight was due to leave for Beijing at 12:30 PM. The taxi took longer than expected (about an hour or so because of traffic) but we made it with time to spare and our flight was delayed for a half an hour as well, although we didn’t find out for a good 15 minutes after we were supposed to start boarding originally that the gate had changed and the change just hadn’t been announced in English. The new gate was very nearby, though, so again, not really a problem.
On the flight, we were served… A FULL MEAL!!! And this was only a three hour flight! My jaw hit the ground when that happened; I can’t remember the last time a US airline served an actual hot meal on a flight – even flights across the country! What was even funnier was about half an hour before we were due to land, the flight attendants stood in the aisles and demonstrated stretches that we could follow along with, AND after that a Shenzhen Airlines pop-music video played on the little TVs and they did a synchronized dance to the music! I know!! I had never seen anything quite so ridiculous, but that’s China for you, right? We landed in Beijing and determined we were supposed to take the number three bus to our hostel which was right across from the Beijing train station, so we got into the airport, bought a bus ticket and then wandered for at least 10 minutes trying to figure out which bus was number three since none of the signs were in English and none of the buses had numbers on them. Makes perfect sense, right? Finally, we located what looked to be the right bus by asking various people who spoke VERY limited English (it was the right bus, thank heavens) and took the two hour ride to a stop near our hostel.
As soon as we stepped off the bus we were assaulted by the Chinese who could speak English (this is the first sign that you should be very wary) and wanted to carry our bags (for a fee), direct us to a hotel (for a fee), take us somewhere in a cab (for a fee), or generally sell us anything we couldn’t possibly want or need (for a fee). I was going through my second round of severe culture shock by this point, and thankfully, the hostel was just across the square and we managed to fight our way with our bags to the hostel, get inside, check in and collapse in our room before realizing we were famished. We went back downstairs and were initially directed to the McDonald’s right next door. No thanks. Then we managed to communicate we wanted something more “Chinese” and were sent to the fast food dumpling place next to McDonald’s. It was not great, it was not even good, but it was food.
After dinner, we decided to get our bearings of Beijing in the dark (genius idea, wasn’t it?) and took the subway (located just steps from our front door) to Tiananmen Square. It was probably not the best way to view Tiananmen Square the first time. Imagine being in a country with almost zero English around, at night, with very cold and windy conditions (probably around 45 degrees Fahrenheit), and seeing the heart of communism and a giant lit up picture of Mao Tse Tung. Not exactly uplifting and inspiring for a first impression. We walked around Tiananmen Square and froze for a bit before we found a Starbucks (this became the recurring symbol of civilization and a Western toilet in China) in nearby Qianmen (a very Western shopping street) and hunkered down for a while trying to plan our next move. After warming up we went back to the hostel and with the help of our Lonely Planet tour book (this later was renamed “The Bible”) mapped our attack for the next day.
We got up on Thursday morning to a much brighter scene (sleep helps all); the day before Beijing was cloudy and yellow, but that day the sun was out, and our first order of business was to book overnight train tickets to Shanghai, which we would be flying out of at the end of the trip and back to Shenzhen. We first tried our hostel’s booking service, and after learning it would cost $200 RMB more than what the guidebooks said was average for a “soft sleeper” ticket, we huffily went over to the train station sure the hostel was trying to rip us off. Turns out, the weekend we wanted to go to Shanghai was Easter weekend (which wasn’t a big deal in China), but it also happened to coincide with “Mass Ancestor Worship” weekend that year (which was a big deal), so train tickets were ALL more expensive. Nuts. Armed with this revelation, we went back and promptly booked tickets through our hostel and the girl (Anne?) who turned out to be one of our most valuable resources in Beijing.
Not only did she assist in booking our tickets, but wrote out addresses for us in Chinese to give taxi drivers, called restaurants to get addresses and prices, and was just a lifesaver overall. I still wish I could thank her for her all her help.
So after that initial drama, we finally headed out to see Beijing properly. The first stop was Lama Temple, the oldest and most accurate Tibetan temple outside of Tibet.
It was quite impressive and housed, among other things, an 18 meter high Buddha (I literally couldn’t see the top of it inside the temple) and a throne that the Dalai Lama actually sat on when speaking to the Chinese. After that, we followed Lonely Planet’s advice and wandered to find the BEST dumpling place in all of Beijing, Niu Ge. It was this tiny little restaurant near Tiananmen Square, but the dumplings were TO DIE FOR!!! The Bible didn’t lie. We ordered the dumplings the book recommended along with a couple of random ones we pointed at on the menu, and we could actually watch the women making them by hand right behind our table in the “kitchen.” They were absolutely the most delicious dumplings I have ever tasted (especially the mutton and onion flavors – we ended up requesting two orders of those).
Then we revisited Tiananmen Square during the daytime (much less intimidating), watched the ceremonial lowering of the flag, and after sunset took the subway to the Olympic Station and saw the Watercube and Bird’s Nest from the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the dark. Absolutely breathtaking! I would never in my wildest dreams have imagined I would see them up close and personal at night. Just fantastic, and to end the day, we went to another LP recommended restaurant (LP really saved us this entire trip) famous for its shredded pork “burgers” (shredded pork stuffed into a fresh, warm bun – like an English muffin almost) and mutton kebabs, and then collapsed back at our hostel. A much more successful first full day in Beijing.
Friday, we did the Forbidden City – for five hours! That place is SO much bigger than I ever imagined. We all rented personal audio guides that would talk and tell us different things about the many, many, many temples as we reached them. The only fly in the ointment for that day was how freaking COLD it was in the city… oh, and the tourists too! Absolutely millions of tourists swarming all over the place! Still, we walked all over, heard about all the different emperors and their many wives and concubines and what they did in their free time, and soaked up Chinese history.
As we exited the city, we also bought panda hats for about $1.30 USD in preparation for the Great Wall (didn’t want to be cold up on top of there) which we had booked for the following day. We also went shopping for souvenirs in a Qianmen hutong (alleyways all over Beijing), got snacks and street food, went to a proper grocery store we stumbled upon for our picnic lunch to take with us on the Great Wall, and had another delicious dinner of fried ribs (I know!), aubergine (I had no idea there was another word for eggplant), fried chicken wings with cumin (the Chinese really know how to fry well and often), Chinese pancakes, and fried rice. Finally we got back to home base, and then the trouble started…
Remember that street food I ate at the Qianmen hutong? It poisoned me. At 2:30 AM I was in the bathroom losing dinner. Luckily (if anything about food poisoning can be lucky) I only threw up once, but I was in no shape to tackle the Great Wall in just a few short hours. Thank the Lord; my friends (and the bus driver to the Great Wall) were so understanding. Through the help of the girl at the front desk, I was able to communicate to him that I was very sick and would like to reschedule the Great Wall for Sunday (the next morning), and he agreed easily. I was SO lucky. So Saturday, I slept almost the entire day, ate a few pieces of bread and tried to drink water and get rehydrated. Not fun, but necessary, and I felt so poorly anyway it didn’t matter much to me what happened so long as I could continue to lay in bed.
Sunday I woke up feeling much better (although still very weak), and unbelievably managed to dress, take the three hour ride to the Great Wall, and through some miracle, hike 3.5 hours and 10 km of the most difficult part of the Great Wall – Jinshanling to Simatai with my girlfriends.
Don’t ask me how I powered through all the steps, crumbly bits, and people on the wall hawking “water, Coke and beer” after having food poisoning the day before and virtually nothing to eat, but I did. I can tell you, that by the end, all four of us were huffing, puffing, sweating (it turned out to be the warmest day of all our days in Beijing), covered in Great Wall dust, and at some points claiming we were just going to die (mostly Jen being a drama queen – “Tell my parents I died attempting the Great Wall!”) but we made it. And the icing on the cake? The prize at the finish line? A zip line across from the place where we exited the Great Wall down to the bus pick up point. SWEET!! Those ten seconds made the last 3.5 hours of hiking so worth it.
When we returned to the city from our trip, showered, and generally felt human again, we went out to the famous Quan Jude Roast Duck Restaurant and celebrated with another traditional Beijing dish – Peking duck! And this was duck done right; the chef actually wheeled a cart next to our table and carved the duck up tableside, gave us a card certifying our duck (yes, this was truly a living duck at one point in time), and a waitress showed us how to properly fold the duck into the thin pancakes served alongside. I know everyone raves about it, but I really wasn’t THAT impressed with the Peking duck; yes it was tasty, but once was enough for me.
Finally, we checked out the much talked about “Night Food Market” just a few blocks from our restaurant, and I swear to you Chinese people eat the weirdest things! Here are some of the odder things I saw for consumption (this is a short list, by the way): starfish, grasshoppers, cicadas, sharks, eels, animal genitals, scorpions, and other things I couldn’t even come close to identifying. I stayed away from the majority of it, in case you were wondering.
Monday was our last day in Beijing before taking an 11-hour, overnight sleeper train to Shanghai that evening. To start the day, we headed to the Drum and Bell Tower and saw a drum performance in the drum tower which was very good. Very talented performers all of them.
Then, we stumbled into the Mao’er Hutong which is a very touristy, famous hutong with lots of cute shops, good souvenir hunting, and tourists! So many people in general (welcome to China). We ended up going back to the Niu Ge dumpling place for lunch again (I told you those dumplings were addictive!) and then we went to the Temple of Heaven Park, which was kind of a rip off because nothing was really blooming yet (it was still early April and cold out), and aside from the temple itself, there was nothing to see. Ah well – it wasted another hour and a half before we went back to our hostel, grabbed our bags, took the subway over the Southern Beijing Train Station, ate McDonald’s for dinner (there really was nothing else, I promise you or else I would have abstained) and got on the train for the ride to Shanghai.
Since we bought the more expensive “soft sleeper” train tickets we actually had our own private four person bedroom on the train with two upper and lower bunks – it was like a cramped little sleepover and not a bad ride at all, as long as you weren’t too claustrophobic. Overall though, it was really nice to have the privacy – the “hard sleepers” were bunks stacked three high and open to the rest of the train car except for a flimsy curtain separating you and the rest of the world (I’d be deathly afraid of my luggage being stolen while I dozed there) and made China a little more bearable.
Read Part Two of this blog tomorrow – it’s so long, it won’t fit in just one post! I get to Shanghai then – like Hong Kong…only communist.